Frequent Questions—Catch Shares

Why implement a catch share program?

Regional fishery management councils have often implemented catch share programs in fisheries where there is too much capacity: in other words, where the number of fishing vessels or each vessel’s ability to catch fish has grown beyond what the fish population can sustain in the long term.

This problem can result from a more traditional management system based on controls on effort, such as the number of days a fisherman may spend at sea. These controls create an incentive to use more and more powerful boats and technology to catch fish as quickly as possible within their allotted days at sea, out-competing others in the fishery. This results in shorter seasons, more dangerous fishing practices, and gluts of fish catch for sale in a short period of time. Outcomes of this cycle can be recurrent overfishing, limited fishing seasons and lower values for fishermen, stress for processors handling the sudden influx of fish, and difficulties for consumers looking for a steady supply of fresh seafood throughout the year.

Catch share programs are one of the fishery management tools that can address the challenge of too much capacity. Transferring shares in catch share programs can benefit fishermen who want to withdraw from a fishery or switch to another fishery by allowing them to trade or sell their shares to other eligible fishermen. Fishermen can also buy available shares and thus increase their potential fishing.

Critical to the development of a catch share program is for NOAA Fisheries and the councils to determine their goals and objectives for the fishery. They must evaluate the use of catch share programs in the context of their overall objectives for the fishery, including the balance between economic efficiency and social and community goals. For example, as a way to protect fishermen and fishing communities, almost all catch share programs in the United States have excessive share caps, which limit the amount of quota any fishermen, group of fishermen or other entity can fish.

Are catch shares new?

No. Several other nations began developing catch share programs in the 1970s. In the United States, the first federal catch share program (for Atlantic surf clams and ocean quahogs) began in 1990.

What is the difference between catch limits and catch shares?

A catch limit is the sustainable amount of fish that can be caught in any given year. The 2006 reauthorization of the MSA required that catch limits be set for all federally managed fisheries to prevent overfishing. Catch limits rely on a transparent, peer-reviewed, scientific process of assessing the status of the fish population. Put simply, a catch limit sets how big the pie is for fishermen as a group in any given year.

Catch shares are an optional management tool that divides up the pie into slices. The catch shares are allocated to individual fishermen or groups, who are held accountable for not exceeding their share.

Why did NOAA create a catch share policy?

NOAA released its Catch Share Policy in 2010 to provide guidance and best practices for regional fishery management councils to use when considering catch shares. The policy was developed with extensive public input and was intended to help councils design their programs with the benefit of lessons learned from other U.S. catch share programs. While catch shares are not appropriate for all fisheries, when they are well-designed, they can help achieve ecological and economic sustainability for fishery resources and fishing communities.

Who creates a catch share program for a fishery?

Catch share programs—like all management strategies for federal fisheries—are developed through a highly participatory and public process led by the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils, each of which has a geographic area of responsibility. The councils’ members represent the commercial and recreational fishing sectors as well as environmental, academic, and government interests. The key to success is for fishermen and other stakeholders to be extensively involved in designing a program that considers each community’s fishing traditions and goals. The process can take a significant amount of time: the catch share program for groundfish and Pacific whiting trawlers on the West Coast, for example, took more than six years to develop.

Does NOAA have a numeric goal for new catch share programs by a set deadline?

No. NOAA does not require catch shares in federal fisheries. The only requirements for councils is that they follow the MSA. This includes setting annual limits on the amount of fish that may be caught to sustain healthy fish populations. NOAA supports councils having the flexibility to consider all management options, including catch shares, when determining how best to meet the requirements of the law.

Why would councils choose to adopt catch share management?

Catch share programs reflect the unique characteristics of different fisheries. But there are some common goals: improving fishermen’s ability to make a sustainable living from fishing and removing the “race to fish” drivers that lead to overfishing, low prices, discarding of low-value fish or fish caught unintentionally, and unsafe fishing conditions. When fishermen are no longer racing for the fish, they can experiment with fishing methods that may result in decreased bycatch and allow a fuller use of target stocks. They can also fish more safely, with demonstrably fewer deaths and injuries in a profession that has always been physically challenging.

What proof is there that catch shares are working for fishermen or fish populations?

The MSA requires NOAA and the councils to review whether certain programs meet their biological, economic, and other goals five years after the program starts, and every seven years thereafter. NOAA’s Catch Share Policy encourages the councils to conduct reviews on this timeline. Most U.S. catch share programs also produce annual reports. NOAA Fisheries also reports on the overall economic performance of catch share programs. 

Do catch shares cause consolidation?

Almost all catch share programs have an objective of reducing fishing capacity, largely in an effort to end the “race for fish.” Councils design them to achieve that objective, which frequently means fewer fishermen or vessels in the fishery. Additionally, in catch share programs some fishermen holding shares choose to sell their privileges to someone else, which results in consolidation. However, councils can put in place measures to limit consolidation such as excessive share caps or “owner on board” provisions.

Does catch share management require increased monitoring?

Often yes. The level of accountability in a catch share program is at the individual or vessel level, not the fishery-wide level. Each individual or vessel cannot go over their allocated share, as opposed to the entire fishery going over its limit. This makes individual-level monitoring and accountability a critical component of a catch share program. Any well-designed fishery management system should be informed by data that managers and stakeholders have confidence in.